Harmon Killebrew: A player makes a powerful memory

(Charles Krupa/AP Photo)
(Charles Krupa/AP Photo)
Posted: May 14, 2011

This column by former Inquirer staff writer Jim Salisbury was published on Dec. 21, 2007:

 This story has been sitting in my sock drawer for 34 years.

It is a story about a baseball, a little kid, and a Hall of Famer.

It is a story about innocence and kindness and finally getting a chance to say thank you after all these years.

Most of all, it is about memories.

I could see that in Harmon Killebrew's eyes and hear it in his voice when he took the ball in his strong hands a few weeks ago and started reading some of the names written upon it.

"Oh, my, there's Danny Thompson," Killebrew said softly.

He spun the ball slowly and scanned two dozen faded signatures.

"Bert Blyleven," he said with a brightening voice.

"Johnny Pesky!"

Every name on the ball seemed to ignite a memory deep inside Killebrew, and, in a way, I knew exactly what he was feeling because that old baseball does the same to me every time I fish it out of the sock drawer.

I collected autographs on that baseball during trips to Fenway Park with my dad in the early 1970s. The ball has survived six moves and three states and would probably be worth a few bucks to some memorabilia collector.

But to me, it is priceless.

It is magic.

Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski signed the sweet spot. The guy who signed his name "Pudge" Fisk also went on to a spot in Cooperstown. Rico Petrocelli is on there. So are Tony Oliva, Blyleven and a host of others. The years have taken a toll on the ball. It has yellowed, and the signatures are badly faded. But memories of acquiring them are indelible, and the fondest memory of all is attached to Harmon Killebrew's signature.

*

It was the summer of 1973. I was 9. My dad and I drove from Rhode Island to Boston to see the Red Sox play the Minnesota Twins on a weekend afternoon. As always, I brought my autograph ball, which still had plenty of blank space on it.

This was a different time in baseball, back before ball parks had secure, private entrances and exits that keep players far from fans. After the game, I stood outside the Red Sox clubhouse hoping to get an autograph or two. The only problem was, every other youngster who had been at Fenway that day had the same idea. It was a mob scene.

"Try the visiting clubhouse," my dad suggested.

While the other kids jostled for position outside the Red Sox clubhouse, I got a clear shot at a lineup of Twins players as they meandered out of their clubhouse.

I still remember approaching three men as they left the clubhouse. I was sure two of them were players because they were tall, lean and athletic looking. I asked them to sign my ball, and they stopped just briefly enough to do so.

The third man in the group was stocky and balding and his temples were gray. When you're 9, you have a terrible concept of age. You think of anyone who doesn't go out for Halloween anymore as old. With that, I must confess I thought the balding man was the trainer. But trying to be polite, I asked him if he'd sign as well.

The man was gracious and completely untroubled. He smiled and said he'd be happy to sign my ball. He asked my name, asked if I played ball and didn't hold it against me when I told him that, yes, I was a Sox fan.

He took his time and signed his name in beautiful, elegant script.

I thanked him, still not sure who he was, and he smiled at me, said something nice, and went on his way.

I looked at the autograph.

Harmon Killebrew

My eyes bulged in elation and disbelief. I had known all about Killebrew . He was one of the game's great sluggers, a 500-homer man, though he was 37 in 1973 and bad knees had limited him to 69 games. I had seen his picture on the cover of the Sporting News. I had seen him on television, in All-Star Games and Games of the Week back in the days before nonstop sports TV, back when a young baseball fan wouldn't think of missing one of those telecasts. But without his cap and uniform on, I did not recognize Killebrew .

Autograph in hand, I turned to my dad who was knowingly watching off in the distance and mouthed Killebrew's name.

He laughed.

On the ride home, I pored over every signature on that ball. I kept coming back to the name wedged in between Jerry Terrell and Steve Braun-Harmon Killebrew-and how nice the guy had been to me.

And, of course, I tried to convince my dad I knew it was Killebrew the whole time.

*

Earlier this month, I fished the ball out of my sock drawer and tossed it into the suitcase as I packed for the winter meetings in Nashville. Killebrew, now 71, was going to be there for a gathering of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. I wanted to look him up and tell him I'd never forgotten that day-those 30 seconds, really-when he was so kind to me. I wanted him to know how much it meant to me, how that was one of the moments that helped kindle the baseball fan in me.

Thirty-four years later, Killebrew could not have been more of a gentleman. He laughed when I told him I thought he was the trainer. He smiled when I thanked him for being so kind to me during that brief 1973 encounter in the underbelly of Fenway Park.

"That makes me feel good," Killebrew said. "I'd hate to think I wasn't nice and respectful to someone. "

Killebrew talked about how baseball is a sport seemingly made for memories and how important fans are to those memories.

"Baseball has such a tremendous history," he said. "It's different than other sports, I think. I go around to different places, especially in the upper Midwest, and someone will still say,'I was on the tractor the day you hit that home run in Cleveland,' or'I was in the milking barn when you hit that home run against the Yankees.' It's great to hear things like that. "

Killebrew lit up when I produced the ball he had signed, and 34 years later, he held it again.

The first name he saw was Thompson, his former teammate who died of leukemia in 1976 at age 29.

"Danny was just a great kid," said Killebrew, the memories flooding back. "I remember wanting to go see him when he was up at the Mayo Clinic. His wife said,'No, Harmon, Danny doesn't want anyone to see him like this.'

"I went to his funeral in his hometown of Capron, Okla. It was so large, they had to have it in a high school gymnasium. "

Killebrew was so moved by Thompson's death he helped establish a memorial golf tournament in honor of his former teammate. The 31-year-old tournament has raised more than $8 million for leukemia research.

Killebrew continued to scan the ball, saw Blyleven's name, and said, "He should be in the Hall of Fame. "

He saw Pesky's autograph and smiled.

"Johnny was my first roommate in the big leagues," he said. "In 1954, I came up with the Senators. I was 17 years old. Johnny was a veteran player, and took me under his wing.

"The veteran players were always so nice to me, and I tried to return that. "

Even to the fans? I asked Killebrew .

"Definitely," he said. "You never know. That might be the only time a person sees you play or meets you. I always tried to remember that."

*

Before saying goodbye to Harmon Killebrew, I became a kid again and asked him to freshen up his autograph on a new ball. That might have been against the baseball writers' code, but this was a special circumstance, and, besides, it was only going in my sock drawer, my personal treasure chest of memories.

While the autographed ball is a nice keepsake and a tangible reminder of one man's kindness, this story is not really about an autograph at all. It's about how powerful professional athletes are and how they have the ability to give someone the memory of a lifetime with a smile, a kind word, and a moment of their time.

May every young sports fan be as lucky as I was. May they all have their Harmon Killebrew some day.

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